Does Paul contradict himself about the role of women in the church in Galatians 3:28? This article shows that Paul does not contradict himself. In Galatians he is addressing the question of men and women standing before God in the salvation brought by Christ. This does not change the roles he ascribes to men and women in other Scripture passages.

Source: Diakonia, 1991. 3 pages.

The Role of Women in the Church: The Magna Carta of Humanity

Galatians 3:2🔗

For many there is a contradiction in Paul. On the one hand he provides us with the Magna Carta of hu­manity, Galatians 3:28,1and on the other he tells slaves to submit to their masters and wives to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-6:9). Jewett sees this as the Jew and the Christian in conflict in Paul. He cannot forget his upbringing and rabbinic training but occa­sionally the true Christian shines through as in Galatians 3:28.1 Others argue that the commands to women to be submissive are time-bound whereas Galatians 3:28 is not. It points the church in the direction in which it should go.2

Since this is such an important verse for the whole discussion let us look at it in a little more detail.

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ did put on Christ. There can be neither Jew nor Greek, there can be neither bond nor free, there can be no male and female; for ye are all one man in Christ Jesus. And if ye are Christ's then are ye Abraham's seed, heirs according to promise.

Galatians 3:27-29

The background to this passage is of course the teaching of the Judaizers. They tried to get the Gentiles to conform to the Jewish law and especially to be circumcised. Paul shows that the law which made distinctions between Jew and Gentile was only the tutor of God's people during their immaturity. Now that Christ has come, the life of sonship with all its privileges and rights, the life of freedom through faith in Christ, belongs to the peo­ple of God. Those who have been baptized into Christ, ie. the whole church, have put on Christ (verse 27) and have been so united with Christ that they are described as one in Him (verse 28).

Before God all men are equally unworthy of His mercy, "for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). The master is not better off than the slave. Indeed it would seem that God's salvation is first for the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden (Luke 4:18-21). Paul is showing these gentile Christians that they do not need to become Jewish proselytes to be saved. His concern is to demonstrate that the "middle wall of partition is broken down" and that those who were once "sepa­rate from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world," are now by the blood of Christ united to Him and equally made partakers of salvation with the Jews (Ephesians 2:11-22). Perhaps here in Galatians 3:28 Paul is thinking of the notorious benedictions (2, 3, 4) in Shemoneh Ezreh in which the Jew blessed God that he was not a Gentile, a bondsman, or a woman. In God's family the Jew has no right to despise the Gentile, nor the master the servant, nor the man the woman.

As can be seen from this whole epistle, Paul was very upset over the Jew/Gentile problem (see par­ticularly 2:11-21). The reason for this was that it deeply affected the doctrine of justification by faith which was central in the gospel which meant so much to him. The false teachers in Galatia taught that some works were necessary for justification, eg. circumcision. This angered the apostle because it detracted from the glory of Christ making His death insufficient for salvation (Galatians 3:11). Paul deals much less with the master/slave and male/female relationships. It was less common for masters and males to think that they would be accepted by God simply because they were masters or males in con­trast to slaves or females. The master/slave equality and the male/female equality helped to illustrate and explain the Jew/Greek equality. Although Paul emphasizes so much the ontological or essential equality of Jew and Greek before God, this does not deter him from differentiating between them. In Romans 1:16 and then in 2:9, 10, he uses the expres­sion "to the Jew first and also to the Greek." The Jew has a priority in salvation and also in condemnation.

In Romans 9:1-5 Paul further describes the privi­leged position of the Israelites and his own deep longing for their salvation. In Romans 11:25-32, he foretells that a day is coming when ethnic Israel will be restored and enjoy the mercy of God. The fact that all are equal before God does not obliterate the distinctiveness of each person and each group. Some, like the Jews, are more privileged than others for which they will be held responsible. Some people are richer or more powerful or more intelligent than others. God does not require all people to be the same but gives different gifts to each and requires that all serve Him in their sphere of life with their talents. First and foremost "there can be neither Jew nor Greek" refers to man's standing before God. However, the fact that both Jews and Gentiles are essentially equal before God also has implications for man to man relationships. In the church the Jew can no longer despise the Greek but must regard him as equally a child of God.

When we consider the second assertion of this verse, "there can be neither bond nor free," we find that the situation is somewhat similar to the preced­ing. The freeman stands in exactly the same position as the slave before God. This has also implications for man-to-man relationships in society. The master must not regard the slave as inferior but treat him as one of the same essential worth as himself. In this connection the Epistle to Philemon is very instruc­tive. Paul calls Philemon's runaway slave Onesimus, "my child whom I have begotten in my bonds" (verse 10). He did not in any way regard Onesimus as an inferior because he was a slave but rather speaks of him in terms of warmest affection as his son. In verse 16 Paul exhorts Philemon to regard Onesimus "no longer as a servant, but more than a servant, a brother beloved specially to me but how much rather to thee both in the flesh and in the Lord."

The fact that they are brothers, that in Christ there is neither bond nor free, though it does not necessarily lead to the abolition of slavery, yet re­moves its ills and substitutes love for oppression and fear. This kind of slavery would be different from any other historical form (apart from that among Hebrews in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 15:12­-18). Some would argue that whether one regards this as the abolition of slavery or the transformation of the institution is a debate over terminology. This however does not seem to be true. Paul everywhere recognizes, and nowhere attacks, the position of authority which the master has over the slave. Al­though master and slave are equal in Christ, yet there is a distinction in authority relations. Even here Paul recognizes the rights of Philemon over Onesimus.

In Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 3:22-4:1, etc., Paul commands servants to obey their masters and mas­ters to remember that they have a Master in heaven. In 1 Timothy 6:2 Paul states that Christian slaves who have believing masters should be more diligent in their obedience because their masters are believing. He does not give them freedom to question the authority of their masters. He sees no contradiction between asserting on the one hand that there is neither bond nor free in Christ and on the other hand asserting that slaves should obey their masters. The phrase "there is neither bond nor free" certainly revolutionizes master/slave relationships. The mas­ter must treat the slave as a brother and must not despise him. However, it is wrong to take this phrase and absolutize it without taking account of its imme­diate context and also its larger context in the Pauline writings.

"There can be no male and female" must be regarded as a parallel to the preceding two clauses. A man is no more acceptable to God than a woman. Without the sacrifice of Christ both would perish. Both men and women are justified on the grounds of Christ's righteousness and on that alone. Male and female are "heirs according to promise" (Galatians 3:29). This ontological equality of man and woman before God naturally has implications for society. Much of the rabbinical literature and that of the early church fathers, regards women as inferior to men and so in this their views must be rejected. However, the fact that there is no inferiority/superiority dis­tinction between man and woman does not necessi­tate drawing no distinction between the sexes in authority relations. We have seen how in Pauline theology Jews continued to have a specific place and slaves continued to be slaves. In a similar way women continue to have a distinctive place and are required to be submissive in the family and church, the lead­ership being given to men (eg. Ephesians 5:22-23 and 1 Timothy 2:8-15). Whether we can reconcile onto­logical equality with inequality in authority rela­tions or not, is relatively unimportant. What is im­portant is to humbly accept by faith the revealed will of God. Galatians 3:28, the central verse in the argu­ment for the ordination of women, is made to prove much more than it is meant to prove.

We find it impossible to accept that the Jewish/ Christian dialectic which Jewett argues is present in Paul, is really there. It is necessary only to consider some of the fundamental changes which took place in Paul's theology when he became a Christian to see how little difficulty, relatively speaking, he would have to change from the "Jewish" to the "Christian" view of women. When he became a Christian he changed from being a persecutor of Christ to being a follower of Him, from despising Gentile dogs to regarding them as equals in the Lord, from earning salvation by keeping the law to receiving salvation by trusting in Christ, and from glorying in the flesh to counting these things as dung for Christ (Philippians 3:3-7). The change in Paul was so com­plete that he practically became the opposite of what he was before. How then could he have problems with the position of women? It is also worth remem­bering in this connection the great appreciation Paul showed for the work accomplished by his female fellow-workers (eg. Romans 16:1-2). Jewett's views must be seen as an attack on the authority of Scrip­ture. If Paul receives some of his doctrines from the rabbis and some from the Holy Spirit, we are faced with the possibility that his doctrine of the atone­ment or of justification by faith were received from sources other than the Spirit and hence the Bible loses its authority and we are in the same maze of meaninglessness as so many modern theologians. There is no inherent incompatibility between the position presented in Galatians 3:28 and that pre­sented in, say, 1 Timothy 2.


  1. ^ Jewett op. cit., pp. 112, 113.
  2. ^  Christian Reformed Church, Acts of Synod 1973, pp. 577, 578.

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